SEATTLE — The most beloved player on the Washington Huskies’ men’s basketball roster grew up in another country playing soccer and volleyball, practicing karate and running track. He did not touch a basketball until he was 18. Now, he’s on pace to block more shots in a single season than anyone in UW history.
Malik Dime is 6-foot-9 junior forward with remarkably long arms and remarkably tall hair, a hi-top fade that accents his sleek, trim frame. (He’s seen Kid ‘n Play’s “House Party.” He liked it.) He moved from Senegal to the United States as an 18-year-old. He speaks six languages, including English. His first love was soccer — FC Barcelona is his squad — and he would still play recreationally if he were allowed, but says there’s no way coach Lorenzo Romar would let him. He is right-handed but blocks shots and dunks with his left and doesn’t really know why. (Same with questions about how he became such a good shot-blocker. It just kind of happened, he says.) He paints basketball shoes in his free time, and has designed pairs for nearly everyone on the team. He is regarded as one of the funniest players on the team, a wise-cracking, affable guy with a deep voice and a warm laugh who everyone wants to be around.
“If you can find someone who doesn’t like Malik Dime,” freshman teammate Matisse Thybulle mused, “let me know, because there’s something wrong with them.”
It’s why Romar describes Dime as perhaps the most popular player on the team. He isn’t a starter, but he plays 22 minutes per game off the bench. He averages 6.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. The latter figure ranks second in the Pac-12.
“He’s a tough guy, and a warrior and a great, great teammate,” Romar said. “Our guys not only love playing with him, they love to see him have success.”
And maybe that success is made even sweeter by how far Dime had to travel just to get here.
• • •
Ask Dime about his move from Senegal to Columbus, Ohio, and he doesn’t give the sense that it was all that big of a deal. He liked it in Dakar, where he lived with his father, Amadou, and his siblings. He played sports and video games and watched television and joked around with his friends, and though he missed his mother, Oumy Fall, who was living in Columbus for about five years before Dime joined her there, he says Senegal’s family-oriented community made him feel at home wherever he went.
“Even if you grew up without your parents, you still have fun with your friends,” Dime said. “That’s part of the culture, too — you always have to make sure that when your friend’s around, he or she feels like family.”
And he had plenty of family. He tells a story about his grandmother’s farm in the Senegalese city of Louga, a three-hour drive from where he grew up in the capital city of Dakar. At grandma’s, Dime used to run and play soccer and wrestle and eat home-cooked meals during annual summer visits.
“Food for days,” Dime recalls.
And milk. Fresh milk, at that, straight from his grandmother’s cows. Maybe that milk was important. He remembers being one of the shortest kids in his friend group, and telling one friend before a month-long visit to his grandmother’s house one year that “we really need to start getting tall. Everybody around here is tall except for us.”
When the visit was over, Dime said, “I figured out that I had gotten really tall. I was taller than him. He couldn’t believe it at all. Ever since then, I kept on growing up.
“The milk. It’s got to be the milk. Straight milk, out of the cow.”
Whatever the cause, Dime wound up taller than his parents, both of whom check in around 5-foot-8. This is why, when he moved to the U.S., he immediately caught the attention of the basketball coach at Walnut Ridge High School.
This took Dime by surprise. He’d agreed to join his mother in Columbus simply because he wanted to go to high school — and eventually college — in the United States. He figured it would be good for his future, and his family’s, too.
He knew nothing about basketball. But after some persuasion, he agreed to play. And at first, he hated it.
“The first year was terrible,” Dime said, “because I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know how to play, I didn’t know the basics, the fundamentals, anything like that. So I was ready to quit.”
But he didn’t, in part because he had a teammate, Alassane Kah, who also grew up in Senegal. Kah’s presence at Walnut Ridge helped in a couple of different ways. He encouraged Dime to stick with the sport, telling him that he’d encountered the same problems when he first started and that he simply needed to fight through it. And he served as a sort of translator for Dime as he learned English.
“I would say he saved my life in my first year in the U.S.,” Dime said.
Dime grew up speaking Wolof, his native language in Senegal. He also learned French as a youngster, and Arabic (he is a devout Muslim), and a few other tribal languages. But just as he’d never played basketball before he moved to the U.S., he’d never spoken a word of English, either.
It helped that his mother had already been in the country for several years and could speak the language with him at home. And he says English was the easiest of the languages to learn.
If he couldn’t think of the right word to use in a certain situation, he would just guess and allow others to politely correct him (his mom told him not to be afraid to make mistakes). If someone used a word he didn’t recognize — typically slang, which still happens — he would ask them to spell it so he could Google it on his phone. And he took some classroom instruction that helped, too.
(His earliest memory of high school in the U.S., he said, was being asked by other students if he was a freshman. He wasn’t, but he told them he was, because he thought it simply meant that he was new to that school. He laughs about this now. He laughs about a lot of things.)
As his English improved, so did his basketball skills. After one season at Walnut Ridge, he transferred to New Hope Christian Academy in Thomasville, North Carolina, and that’s when he began to receive attention from colleges.
Dime’s offensive game was still unpolished, but he could always block shots. He says it’s not something he ever really worked on — “that’s one thing I was good at from the jump,” he said — but figures his sporting background in volleyball and karate might have something to do with it.
His school credits from Senegal didn’t transfer so well to the United States, though, and so he didn’t qualify to play Division 1 out of prep school. He settled instead for two years of junior-college ball at Indian Hills in Ottumwa, Iowa.
At first, Dime wasn’t happy about that. But it ended up being instrumental in his growth as a player.
• • •
Prior to Dime’s sophomore year, Indian Hills hired Chris Burgess, the former Duke and Utah big man, as an assistant coach. Burgess immediately noted Dime’s athleticism and defensive prowess. But he wanted to simplify his offensive game.
So Burgess gave Dime two distinct moves to focus on: a left-shoulder hook off a right-to-left shake into the middle of the paint, and a move to counter that if the opponent took it away.
If you’ve watched the Huskies play this season, you’ve probably seen Dime make that shot. Romar has said a few times that Dime has more offensive game than most realize. At Indian Hills, Burgess’ goal was to advocate for him to get the ball in the post so he could build game repetitions.
He could always dunk, rebound, defend and block shots.
“What he didn’t have,” Burgess said, “was catching that ball on the block and going to work. And the only way you can get that is by getting him the touches in the game. That was my biggest thing with him.”
Dime reveres Burgess, who is now an assistant at Utah Valley, and credits him for developing his offensive skills.
“Hook shots, spin moves, dream shakes,” Dime said. “All that type of stuff. He’s very skilled.”
• • •
T.J. Otzelberger is only kind of joking when he says he wished his recruitment of Dime to Washington hadn’t been so successful.
Otzelberger was the UW assistant with whom Dime spoke the most, and one of the reasons why Dime chose to play for the Huskies. But at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, Otzelberger left for an assistant coaching position at Iowa State, where he also worked before his stint with UW.
Iowa State was among the other schools Dime seriously considered.
“I’d much rather be coaching him right now than watching him, to be honest with you,” Otzelberger said with a laugh.
The two became close despite Otzelberger’s initial belief that landing Dime would be “a long shot.” Several Big 12 schools pursued him. Otzelberger wasn’t sure he could convince him to come all the way to Seattle.
But he began to gain his trust. Otzelberger recalls one night when he told Dime he would call him at 9 p.m., but didn’t get around to it until 9:30.
When he answered, Dime asked why he hadn’t called when he said he would.
“I could tell at that point in time that he was someone who really wanted you to shoot him straight all the time,” Otzelberger said. “I think during the recruiting process it resonated that we needed to really do what we said.”
Dime said he chose UW for a variety of reasons. He liked that it was on the west coast. He liked Otzelberger. He likes that Romar “is like a father to his players,” and that he has a history of advancing to the NCAA tournament.
“I think for him,” Otzelberger said, “he wanted to go somewhere where he felt trust and what he brought to the table was something that was needed.”
• • •
It was badly needed. Entering Wednesday’s game at Utah, Dime has 66 blocked shots. That’s just 19 shy of the UW single-season school record, set last season by Robert Upshaw, who did it in 19 games. Regardless, Dime will own the record if he simply maintains his current pace.
For a team that struggled so thoroughly to protect the rim after Upshaw’s midseason departure a year ago, Dime has been a welcome addition.
“He has the ability to stay on his feet and not leave his feet until you release the ball,” Romar said earlier this season. “Because of his wingspan, he’s able to reach up there and get it there. And he has great timing. You don’t leave your feet, you have a 7-foot, 5-inch wingspan, and you can jump, and you have great timing, you’re probably going to be a pretty good shot blocker.”
Dime says he doesn’t give much thought to breaking records, saying only that “I’m just playing how I need to play.”
He studies international relations at Washington, and wants to work in management some day. He’s obviously well-traveled, has a diverse language background and says he’s good with numbers, too. Malik Dime will not struggle to find work after college.
But he’s going to see how far this whole basketball thing takes him, first.
“When I first got (to the U.S.), I just wanted to go to school, get my degrees, have a good job and take care of my family,” Dime said. “But since I started playing basketball, I figure I’ve got a chance to someday make some money in it, and I can get my degree from college. So that’s a big opportunity for me.”